In William Shakespeare’s Classic Tragedy “Hamlet,” the young prince, through urgings of the ghost of his father, grapples with the injustice of his father’s murder and his uncle’s usurpation of his throne and the rapid marriage of his mother to his uncle. In Act 3, Hamlet delivers his famous existential soliloquy “To Be or Not to Be, that is the question.” He contemplates the known sorrow of life where he feigns madness and spurns love compared to the unknown future of non-existence – death. Hamlet chooses to live to see through his promise to his father’s ghost to avenge his father’s murder, but, as in any good tragedy, in the process he loses all that he loves, his kingdom and ultimately his own life (Sorry for the spoiler, but come on, you should have read it) giving his kingdom to the son of the man Hamlet’s own father had killed.
Today, Conservative Republicans have reached their own existential crisis with the rise and election of Donald Trump as the leader of the Republican party. The very movement launched by men such as William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan which had dominated the Republican party since Reagan has found itself out of the driver’s seat. The very movement that had provided the energy that gave Republicans control of Congress, the Tea Party, had found a new champion in Donald Trump. Anger at the failure of Republicans to deliver change with control of Congress swelled to throw out “RINOs” and “Establishment” or as Trump named the chant “Drain the swamp.” Like Prince Hamlet, they hear the ghosts of Lincoln and Reagan, but what are the ghosts saying? Rise up and seek revenge on the usurper? Run away and set up a government in exile? Join the enemy of the Crown?
Trump was an unlikely champion of Tea Party conservatives and social conservatives. He was historically a liberal and a frequent visible supporter of Democrats. He had a well known immoral past and a very tenuous connection to Christianity. Yet social conservatives (particularly white evangelicals) freely embraced him in the face of what they perceived as a steady attack on their religious culture – legalization of same sex marriage, transgender us of public restrooms, the rise of political correctness, “white privilege,” Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter, the “war on Christmas,” etc. There was also a rising fear of immigrants – fueled largely by the large migrations of Syrian refugees into Europe and America and the attacks of ISIS, which included attacks on American soil. There was a sense to them that the country was “out of control.” It was not a time for reason and compromise. It was time to “Make America Great Again” because we were going to be overrun by immigrants, killed by terrorists or lose Chirstmas. Obama and Clinton were clearly responsible for this and Trump was the solution.
In this atmosphere, there was little room for traditional conservative principles. Conservatives were fractured in the 2016 election. Many initially opposed Trump and declared “Never Trump” only to return to the fold and vote Republican because the thought of President Hillary Clinton was completely untenable. Others saw Trump as the greater threat and decided to vote for Clinton. Still others, like myself, could bring not bring ourselves to vote for either and voted for third party candidates or refused to vote in that election.
Of course, Trump did win. Following the election, most conservatives, including me, took a (less than optimistic) wait and see approach – ready to support conservative principles, but also ready to criticize where necessary. Others, however, took a decidedly different path. A surprising number to me, became as John McCormack of the Weekly Standard recently coined the term, “Neo-Trump” and firmly lined up behind the President – occasionally becoming uncomfortable with his actions, but not standing to oppose in any way. Others, like for example Sen. Marco Rubio, have been generally supportive, but also vocally critical on certain issues. As a whole however, the GOP Congress, while not giving Trump everything he wants, has been most cautious to confront or cross Trump. Those who have, have not fared well. Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake chose not to seek re-election. Recently, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) went down to primary defeat.
However, another significant faction, much to my surprise have discovered themselves to be “neo-liberal” and have all but left conservatism behind to join the Resistance – Trump being the focus of modern evil. Washington Post Columnist Jennifer Rubin, for example, still calls her column “Right Turn,” but its clear she has made a U turn. I’ve observed a number of other “conservative voices” in blogging and on social media do a total flip over Trump.
Others have either formally left the Republican party as a protest over Trump’s behavior or policies such as separation of families at the border. Yet another group remains in the party but strongly advocates that Democrats win control of Congress to purge and repudiate Trumpianism from the GOP.
The late great Charles Krauthammer coined the term “Bush Derangement Syndrome” to describe Democrats who had lost all sense of reason of President George W. Bush. He described as: “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” To no one’s surprise, the term “Trump Derangement Syndrome” has been applied to anyone who does not sing Trump’s praises or dares to criticize non-conservative policies, e.g. protectionist tariffs, or outrageous and immoral behavior that degrades the office of the President and reflects horribly on Republicans. I have frequently been accused of TDS.
I would concur that TDS is real. I have watched conservatives I admire become so frothed at the mouth as to incomprehensibly advocate what they fought against for years – because of Trump. Contrary to my critics, my positions have not changed. I advocate the same core conservative principles that I have advocated most of my adult life – with a few changes recent years (immigration reform and same sex marriage), but those changes occurred pre-Trump and have nothing to do with him. Nonetheless, my critics routinely assure me that my positions and the strength of my support for them are mere products of “Trump hate.”
I’ll be the first to admit it. I don’t like him. I don’t like his protectionism, his foreign policy, his crude and immoral manner, his bullying nature (I really just have no patience for bullies), his anti-intellectualism, his pandering to hate groups and ignorance, his attacks on free speech and free press (and before you go all “Fake News” on me, he attacks anyone who attacks him), his penchant for dividing the country, etc. As to “hate,” yes, I do hate what he has done to my party which has included the normalization of racism in the name of opposing political correctness, e.g., the nomination of Corey Stewart for Senate in Virginia. I hate the ugly behavior at his rallies. I hate the lack of civility that he has heightened (yes, it already existed and yes Democrats have been just as uncivil). I could go on, but that is pretty sufficient to illustrate my point. So, Trump hate? Guilty. TDS? No.
Having said these things, he has surprised me on some things. He has followed through on regulatory reform pretty aggressively. He did appoint Gorsuch, an eminently qualified jurist for the Supreme Court which proved pivotal in 3 major cases this week. He has appointed a number of conservative judges in the lower courts. Some have been great. Others, well, no. On balance, in that regard, I will confess that he exceeded my expectations. Of course, over the last 2 days I have been reminded of this and asked am I not happy Hillary didn’t make an appointment. Bear in mind though, I did not vote for Hillary.
While the Courts are important, we have made them far more important than they should be. The Courts have become a super legislature because Congress fails to do its job. If we remedied that dysfunction, the courts would be far less important. Also, bear in mind, that if the President gets NATO wrong, North Korea wrong, or China or Russia wrong, Courts are the least of our problems. I’m a lot more concerned about foreign policy than the courts – my own interest in Constitutional law notwithstanding.
I am not trying to re-litigate the 2016 election. In fact, I’m really quite tired of hearing about it – from all sides. Trump won. Period. End of story. “Elections have consequences.” – Barak Obama. I’m not pushing for impeachment. I do believe it is important to let the Special Counsel do his job. I do believe there will be a lot more to see – and its going to get pretty ugly. Impeachment level ugly? Unknown. I’m rather doubtful. Will more people go to prison? I think that is likely. Will it affect the 2018 or 2020 election? No way to know at this point.
Former Republican Columnist George Will has called for an effort to elect Democrats in the mid-term as being the only solution to purge Trumpianism from the GOP. While I am sympathetic to that view (because I think it is unlikely to change unless that does happen), I simply cannot advocate that action. Contrary to views of many of my critics, I remain a member of my state and local GOP and work to elect Republicans. Why? Because I don’t think you can change the party from the outside. I still believe in the legacy of the party of Lincoln and Reagan. I don’t know why anyone would think they can leave and campaign against the party and then come back and assert your moral will. Frankly, that’s delusional. People have long memories. Having said that, I have, literally and publicly, cut all ties with the Republican National Committee. It is an arm of Trump and I will have nothing to do with it.
So, as Hamlet contemplated his fate, so must Conservative Republicans decide what they will do with their own usurper “uncle” Donald Trump. What is the way forward? Is the answer to renounce the GOP and Trump? Should conservatism, which has become mired with Trump’s nativism and tribalism, be renounced as well?
There is no question that both Conservatives and Republicans have serious brand damage. I warned about this loudly and frequently in the 2016 election. My fears have been more than realized. The GOP has indeed become the party of Trump (with over 80% of GOP approving of Trump), and not the party of Lincoln and Reagan. “Conservatism” has been redefined to embrace fiscal irresponsibility, crony capitalism, protectionism, demagoguery, and xenophobia. The principles that built conservatism – free markets, fiscal responsibility, small government, and the rejection of racism – have disappeared from the radar. I truly understand why those who left the party and the movement did so.
As unwelcome as I currently feel in my party those calling themselves “conservatives,” I don’t see another viable alternative. Third parties are a ticket to nowhere in America. I have good friends who are Libertarians. I respect them and their views. However, I often tell them and others that Libertarians are the nine sided dice players of politics (a Dungeons and Dragons reference). Most people, myself included, will never understand D&D and neither do most people – regardless of the enthusiasm of the players. People just don’t take them seriously. They had their best chance in 2016. The candidates of both parties were hated. Who did they nominate? Gary (“What’s Aleppo?) Johnson, who even in interviews looked like he had just had a great smoke.
Also, historically, third parties just don’t work in America. They only have permanent impact following the collapse of a major party. There are a number of reasons for that which I will not delve into here. Suffice it to say, neither party is at the collapse point yet and it isn’t happening. So it might feel good to leave and wave your own new flag, but you’ll be lonely.
You could join the Democrats …. But why? Haven’t you fought them most of your life? There is no room in the Democratic party for your views. Right now, Democrats are having their own existential crisis with “uncle” Bernie, who isn’t even a Democrat, in a giant tug of war between liberal/centrists and progressives (and just outright socialists, or as they will correct me “Democratic Socialists). Don’t even try to be a pro-life Democrat. You will face the Purge.
Is the enemy of my enemy really my friend? Never Trumpers criticized Republicans who voted for Trump solely because he wasn’t Hillary. Voting for Democrats simply because they aren’t, or oppose Trump, is the same monolithic approach. If Republicans take a kick in the keister this fall, it very well COULD carve Trump from the GOP. However, if the Democrats take control of Congress, I think it highly likely that Trump will find new friends and work with Democrats. He is not a man of principle and historically is liberal. It’s clear his base will go where he goes, so he would have little to lose by doing so.
I believe the solution to the existential crisis is to choose “To Be.” Conservatives need to get back what first built the Conservative movement – Ideas. The Conservative movement embraced the principle of ordered liberty. As Lee Edwards, Ph.D wrote in “The Origins of the Modern American Conservative Movement” from the Heritage Foundation:
The central idea of The Conservative Mind, upon which American conservatism is essentially based, is ordered liberty. It is a blending of the sometimes contending requirements of the community and the individual, of individual freedom and individual responsibility, of limited government and unlimited markets.
Much of this comes from “Classic Liberalism” of the Enlightenment embraced by John Locke. Conservatives believe in the strength of individual liberty and the strength of a society comes not from the strength of government, but of civil society – expressed in non-government institutions such as families, churches, neighborhood organizations, service clubs, fraternities sororities, etc.
Conservatism as a modern American movement was launched by intellectuals such as William F. Buckley. The current trend in politics is anti-intellectual. However, I firmly believe that the answer to darkness is light. The answer to anti-intellectualism is engagement with intellectual, intelligent, understandable, and relatable thinking. Millennials, who currently lean left, actually respect this process – when they are engaged.
In his recent book, “Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy” Jonah Goldberg points out that Civil Society is against human nature and human nature is always ready to reclaim us. We have to struggle to press forward the ideas which have made us prosperous and free.
It will not happen automatically. It will not happen if we choose “Not to Be.” The struggle to remain relevant will not be easy. It will be hard fought with much mocking and name calling. However, the legacy of Locke, Lincoln, Buckley and Reagan are too important to leave behind like some dicarded and forgotten refuse. It is our birthright and we must fight for those promises and ideas to remain relevant so that we can pass them on to the next generation as others have faithfully passed them on to us.
We must choose “To Be” light in a time of darkness.